The outcome was as inevitable as it was confounding but the journey was more interesting than usual. The Cleveland Browns are a league doormat for many reasons not the least of which is their inability to beat division rivals or win an opening game. So in that sense, nothing changed as the result of the outcome of Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
What made it more interesting than usual was the startling dichotomy behind a first half that unfolded as if the Browns would be on the business end of a 50+ point beat down and a second half that showed them to be a game if undermanned team.
Still, as head coach Mike Pettine noted, it’s a results oriented league that gives no points for moral victories and thus the Browns are, as usual, 0-1.
This is a team, a franchise, a fan base, that needs something positive to happen. It almost happened Sunday as the team improbably clawed its way back from a moribund 27-3 halftime deficit to tie it up late in the game. Then of course it reverted to what it is because a team’s character shows most prominently during times of stress. Needing a few first downs to at least get to overtime, the Browns offense instead buttoned back up, putting itself in bad positions with blown up plays that ultimately allowed Ben Roethlisberger to lead his team on one final drive that sent the Browns home with just another almost win and definite loss.
You could say that it was the defense that let this team down once again on that final drive, as it has some many times in the past. But that only tells part of the story. Looking as if it had no preseason in which to prepare when it yielded 27 first half points to the Steelers, the defense looked nearly formidable in the second half holding the Steelers to just those 3 critical points that ended the game.
It’s not really about dumping on this group of players for another loss because in many ways it’s not the players that failed but those above them and I don’t mean the coaching staff. Sure Joe Haden once again demonstrated that he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is and Justin Gilbert showed he is in desperate need of some film study. But the defensive line, long touted as the strength of this team, showed up in the second half. So did the linebackers. Roethlisberger looked pretty damn ordinary for most of that second half as a result.
What continues to fail this team of course is its erstwhile and reckless approach to management. Owner Jimmy Haslam can’t possibly think that the one and done he subjected former head coach Rob Chudzinski to had no impact on the direction of this franchise or even the outcome of this particular game. It was monumental and not because Chudzinski was slated to be the next Bill Belichick. It was because the impetuousness he demonstrated in first taking the words of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi and then summarily firing them when they couldn’t deliver on any of their promises for the next coach showed the team and the world that Haslam, like Gilbert, needs plenty of seasoning.
It also put this team where it’s been too many times already—learning a new system, breaking in a new coach. That’s some pretty high hurdles to take on in addition to the challenges that one of the league’s most stable franchises, Pittsburgh, perennially provides.
Marla Ridenour, writing in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, talked about the cloud that hangs over the team because of the Chudzinski firing and she’s right. There’s nothing to suggest at the moment that Haslam will be any less impetuousness with Pettine when things go wrong. Indeed would anyone be really surprised if Haslam were to fire Pettine should the team find itself winless during its bye week? Of course not.
But we do know one thing. Pettine isn’t a particularly impatient man or at least a man coaching like he’s on the league’s shortest leash. With just about everything going wrong in the first half, the narrative, indeed the collected wisdom within the confines of what make up the “experts” on the NFL’s pregame shows was that after one failed half it was now Johnny Manziel time. Ridiculous on many levels but let’s start with the most basic.
Pettine is a rookie head coach. The quickest way to cement that status is showing impatience with the fragile psyches that are the NFL’s band of quarterbacks. If he replaced Hoyer at the end of the first half, it would have been tantamount to replacing him forever, sort of how Chris Palmer went to Tim Couch when Ty Detmer failed in that embarrassing opening season loss to, who else?, Pittsburgh in 1999 or when Romeo Crennel benched Charlie Frye near the end of the first half in the 2007 season opener against, wait for it, Pittsburgh, and went to Derek Anderson. In other words, there was exactly this precedent in recent Browns’ past for Pettine to have benched Hoyer.
It would have been so like someone associated with the Browns to draw conclusions after one half of football in the season’s first game that perhaps that’s really why everyone was calling for Manziel. They just kind of figured a Browns head coach, understanding the terrible history of head coaches in this town and the dreadful opening game outcomes for more than a decade, especially against Pittsburgh, would fall right in that line.
For not giving into the inevitable temptation, Pettine as much as anyone gets a Star of the Game award.
And what to make of Hoyer. Well, for one thing, he operates better in a no-huddle format than the plodding approach employed by all of the offensive coordinators past. So stick with it from here on in if only because it plays to the strength of the one guy that you need most at the moment.
The reason you need him most is because General Manager Ray Farmer still harbors the belief that he did address the wide receiver situation by stockpiling this team with Division II players, small fries, and undrafted free agents (many of whom not coincidentally fill all 3 slots). Farmer claims they’re talented receivers it’s just that fans don’t know their names. Neither does the rest of the league.
Put it this way, though, it wasn’t by accident that Hoyer kept going to tight end Jordan Cameron early on. He’s reliable. The others clearly haven’t shown enough even in practice for Hoyer to rely on them.
This Browns team isn’t a talented bunch. There were flourishes on Sunday, certainly. But what holds this team back is what has always held this team back. A franchise if not in turmoil then at least in dissonance. It’s hard to know exactly how far this team is away from being a legitimate contender but there are clues. For example, more than half the roster wasn’t even with the team last year. Another example, it still sorely lacks depth at virtually every position, making it more vulnerable than most to injuries.
It’s not even fair yet to say that this team will be interesting to watch all season. There were good signs on Sunday but that’s all there were. Nothing definitive will be decided next Sunday either against New Orleans. What this team needs now is simply to show progress. It did on Sunday, as measured from one half to the next. The real trick comes in showing it from one game to the next.